Dallas — Second Thought Theatre opens its 2018 season with Lucas Hnath’s Hillary and Clinton, directed by Laura Colleluori and featuring Stormi Demerson in her STT debut as Hillary. Hnath’s plays (it’s pronounced “NAYth”) have made the rounds on North Texas stages, always brain-teasing, and on a remarkably different range of topics, from end-of-life issues in Death Tax and Newton’s tendency to experiment on himself in Isaac’s Eye (both Amphibian Stage Productions), to the internal storms of an evangelical congregation in The Christians (Dallas Theater Center).
Colleluori is a director, dramaturg and producer based in New York, but her Dallas roots run deep. She’s worked in North Texas with Dallas Theater Center, Second Thought, Cara Mía Theatre Co., Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, Echo Theatre and Wingspan Theatre Company. TheaterJones caught her for a phone interview in the days before opening night: Hillary and Clinton previews Jan. 10-11, opens Jan. 12 and runs through Feb. 3 in Bryant Hall on the DTC’s Kalita Humphreys Campus, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. in Dallas. Pay-what-you-can performances are on previews, and Mondays in the run.
Stormi Demerson plays Hillary and Barry Nash plays Bill. The production also features Jim Kuenzer and Sam Henderson.
TheaterJones: You split your life and work now between New York City and Dallas, where you grew up.
Laura Colleluori: I moved back to Dallas after college and was lucky enough to find a slot at the Dallas Theater Center; I worked in their education department for a few years. But after a while, I had to decide if I really was committing myself to being a director. I was 24, and it seemed the right time to make a move. So I went to New York to be a director, and spent a whole year doing absolutely everything but that! Stage managing, company managing, freelancing, a lot of whatever. And I’m just now starting to dig in and pursue directing, fellowships and such.
So in other words, you’re a typical working theater person, doing ten things at once to make it in the “gig” economy.
Just the theater world alone in New York is enormous, and it takes a while to find your way. But I’ve begun to find my group there, and I plan to keep coming here too, as long as Dallas will have me, and my parents haven’t turned my bedroom into an office!
Which came first, your yen to direct, or your interest in dramaturgy? [TJ note: Dramaturgs do many things: they help new playwrights with script development, provide historical and literary research that adds depth to companies’ productions of classic works…and more.]
The directing came first—but I loved dramaturgy, too. I think people tend to be drawn into theater by acting, in middle school or high school—and I knew I was terrible at acting. But I loved reading plays, digging into scripts, finding out why my character was doing the things she did.
It was when I got back to Dallas and was working with DTC casting director Travis Ballenger that he introduced me to what true dramaturgy is. Until then I’d defined it as “doing research on plays.” Through him, I found out about new play dramaturgy: working with a playwright on developing a piece, really getting in there and being an advocate for the play as it’s being written—and that was super, super exciting to me.
A tricky but fascinating road to go down with a working playwright.
It’s a really, really deep-trust relationship. One of the hardest things is that you’re advocating for their best version of the play, not your best version. It needs to be what the playwright wants it to be.
Was Lucas Hnath on your radar before you became involved with this production?
I wrote the “Come Early” lecture for the Dallas Theater Center production of The Christians, so I had gained some familiarity with his work in my research. And because I knew I was going to be working on Hillary and Clinton, I went to see A Doll’s House, Part 2 on Broadway—and am so glad I did, because he has such a specific tone and style. It’s good to see that exercised as much as I possibly can.
In your mind, what defines Hnath as a playwright?
He’s very playful, for one thing. He writes about people dealing with serious problems and fighting for something that matters to them. But he never shies away from letting you see the lightness in these situations. And it also strikes me that his characters speak very plainly. Alex pointed out the other night that a character comes straight out and says of another character: “He’s a bad person.” It’s such a bold, straightforward thing to say. His characters don’t hide behind anything. They say what they mean to say.
He’s very theatrical, too, and plays with that differently in each of his shows. In The Christians, everyone used microphones when they spoke [the action takes place inside a mega-church]. In Doll’s House, Part 2 there were a ton of projections that split the play into different sections; and with Hillary and Clinton, people will see pretty early that he’s found a framework that’s equally theatrical.
I was mentally pairing up those two plays, Hnath’s Doll’s House and Hillary—and they’re both looks inside a famous marriage, right?
I read something Hnath said recently, that Hillary and Clinton is a play about a marriage, and A Doll’s House, Part 2 is a play about a breakup.
Why do you think he didn’t call the play Hillary and Bill?
I think there’s something about the Clinton identity that is very Bill, defined by Bill. And so much of the play is Hillary struggling with the fact that her identity is tied to that Clinton image. It’s not just that she’s struggling with Bill the other character [in the play], but that even when he’s offstage, she is still Hillary Clinton—it’s still surgically a part of her story. Can she separate herself from that? Does she want to?
And yet, these characters are a version of the Clintons, not the Clintons we’ve been watching for years. That must change things.
What Lucas has done is frame it in the larger question of multiple universes—this idea that sounds so science-fiction-y to me but is theoretically probable, that every reality and possibility does exist somewhere. He’s put them in a universe slightly different from our own. She’s still running for president in 2008, a lot of things are the same—but it gives us a nice little bit of breathing room and distance to look at them anew. He instructs us to look at them as we would characters in a Shakespeare history play. Yes, they did really exist and many things are factually accurate—but they are different.
Yet he knows that our heads are full of all the Clintons’ real-world history and doings. We can’t shake that off—so in a certain sense, Hnath is playing his own game here.
That was honestly one of my biggest reactions to his A Doll House, Part 2. Great play, really enjoyed it, but it has nothing to do with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. He’s using these characters as a jumping off point. It is not meant to be a sequel—and at first that used to frustrate me. But the more I dive in, I get it. I think he wants us to live in that cognitive dissonance.
Just making it tough for us.
Yeah, you know…playwrights.
There will be things that get a laugh of recognition, but these are very different characters. The first thing you’ll see is a hotel room, and there’s something so jarring about finding these two people, who we see as titans on big universal stages, in a really intimate, pedestrian setting. For me, that one thing 100 percent re-orients me, and everything from there feels new. Because we’ve never—it’s always one of the criticisms of Hillary, that we don’t get to see behind the curtain—so we finally get to do that in a deep way here, and I think it will be pretty surprising.
Does this play resonate a bit differently now, after this past year, after the #MeToo movement and so on?
The past year has definitely informed a lot of what I think about this play. It doesn’t deal so much with Bill and his infidelities, though they come up a bit. We are focused on the idea of Hillary Clinton. Who is she? Can she become president? If she can’t, why can’t she? At times, that’s been a painful question to be asking in this year, but it’s ultimately for me proven to be a really cathartic and almost comforting question.
Because we get to see Hillary come to terms—spoiler alert: she doesn’t win in 2008—with not winning. And seeing her get there has helped me get there, speaking as someone who is still sleeping in her campaign T-shirt.
It’s nice for her that [in this possible universe] The Other Guy is a worthy opponent, at least. And it’s refreshing that the play doesn’t deal so much with Hillary’s actual politics. It’s a portrait of her as a woman, a wife, a boss—a human who is trying to do something.